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Here comes omicron

Ready or not.

Houston is seeing early signs of another wave of COVID-19 infections, fueled in part by a fast-spreading omicron variant, as public health officials warn of a nationwide spike in cases as early as next month.

The daily average of positive cases in the Texas Medical Center more than tripled last week, from 232 to 721, and Houston Methodist on Tuesday recorded nearly five times the number of positive cases in its system compared to the previous week. Harris County Public Health on Tuesday reported 483 new cases, the highest single-day total in more than two months.

The number of omicron cases in Houston detected through genome sequencing is small but rising, with Houston Methodist reporting 54 samples of the new strain Wednesday, compared to 31 four days earlier. The variant now makes up roughly 32 percent of cases in the hospital system, up from 13 percent on Saturday. Traces of omicron are also being detected at a growing number of city’s wastewater treatment plants.

With little data available in what is considered the early stages of the new variant’s spread, experts are uncertain about the degree to which it could overwhelm the healthcare system — a critical question in the months ahead. They are, however, growing more confident of an imminent swell of sickness.

“We’re going to have a wave. I don’t doubt it at all,” said Dr. Rodrigo Hasbun, professor of infectious diseases with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. “It’s just the magnitude of it and the duration that’s in question.”

[…]

Throughout the pandemic, Houston’s wastewater treatment plants have been a reliable indicator of future local spread, usually preceding new infections by about two weeks. During the week starting Nov. 29, the city found traces of omicron in seven treatment plants. By the following week — the most recently available data — that number jumped to 25.

“We can see how quickly this variant is going to spread,” said Hasbun.

Early findings from South Africa suggest that omicron causes less severe disease than earlier strains, though several factors, such as the country’s younger population, cloud the data.

Some experts offer cautious optimism despite the bleak outlook.

Dr. Annamaria Macaluso Davidson, associate vice president of medical operations for Memorial Hermann Medical Group, is hopeful that pockets of highly vaccinated areas in the city and new COVID treatments arriving on the market will stave off a dire situation at hospitals.

Two new pills to treat less severe COVID infections could receive emergency use authorization by early 2022.

“We’ve got more tools at our disposal that I think are really promising, even if we’re facing another surge,” she said.

The latest developments highlight the urgent need for vaccinations and booster shots ahead of the Christmas holiday.

Well, we know about the wastewater data. There’s been an uptick in demand for the booster, but the total number of people who have had a third shot is still pretty small. What we know so far suggests that omicron can evade the immunity response better than delta can, and so even fully vaxxed people, or people with two shots who have also had COVID, can still get the omicron variant. But if they do, it will very likely be mild. Even lesser-strength immunization seems to mitigate the severity of omicron, and that plus the Pfizer pill is the reason for guarded optimism. You should still take all reasonable precautions. Get that booster, avoid large indoor gatherings, that sort of thing. We’re in a much better place than we were last spring. Just don’t be dumb about it.

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